“Neither by service nor fee Come I to mine estate – Mother of Cities to me, But I was born in her gate, Between the palms and the sea, Where the world-end steamers wait,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in an ode to the erstwhile Bombay.
Generations of Indians have read and loved The Jungle Book. But not many are aware that the author of this beautifully rendered and visually arresting masterpiece, Rudyard Kipling, shared an intrinsic bond with India, especially Mumbai.
To understand what inspired some of Kipling’s greatest works, here’s an humble attempt to see India through the eyes of the “Bard of the Empire”.
The most visible link of Kipling to Mumbai is a green-painted wooden bungalow with a tarnished bronze bust on a plinth in its porch. Peering at its plaque, one can just make out the words “Rudyard Kipling, son of Lockwood Kipling, first dean of Sir JJ School of Art, was born here on December 30, 1865.”
Almost consumed by the spreading trees leaning against its roof, with peeling paint and rotting wooden balconies, this bungalow was the official residence of the JJ School of Art’s dean. Rudyard’s father John Lockwood Kipling served as the first dean of the school and the Kipling family lived on campus.
The original house of Kipling’s birth was, however, demolished as it crumbled away. The present structure, called the “Kipling House” which came up adjacent to the original bungalow, was constructed in 1882 almost a decade after Kipling had left for England. The structure has bravely stood the test of time as plans for its restoration have fallen through time and again.
However, while this heritage building may be the most tangible of Kipling’s connections to Mumbai, it isn’t the only one. The author has also left behind a lasting legacy of words to describe the Bombay as he knew it. Kipling wrote about the “far-going Arab dhows” that he sighted on the shores of Bombay as well as the “gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset”
Kipling, who later in his life wrote vividly of jungles and jungle life, also described about his morning walks to the Crawford Market and his evening strolls around the Mahim woods. In his autobiography, he also recollected how he once got scared by a Bombay hen (he describes it a “winged monster as big as myself”) while on his way to the JJ school workshop!
Kipling’s days in Mumbai were, however, few. He was shipped off to London at the age of six and returned to the city only once. At the age of 17, he stayed in Mumbai for a few days before heading off to Lahore to join the staff of the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG). Although he called his time at the Gazette “hard”, it was an ideal literary apprenticeship, as he accumulated deep layers of detail about Indian life.
For several years, as a young newspaper reporter, Kipling covered “the season” in Shimla – or Simla as it was called in the days when the British fled the scorching summer plains and ruled one-fifth of humanity from it for half the year. He spent several summers in Shimla for the Civil and Military Gazette, picking up gossip for his columns and short stories at the aptly named Scandal Point and getting lost in the “crowded rabbit warren” of bazaars that spill down the mountainside below the fashionable Mall.
For Kipling, this picturesque Himalayan hill station was the place where “every right-minded story should begin”. It was here that his character Kim was inducted into the art of spycraft by the mysterious Lurgan Sahib, whose shop was “full of things that smelt like all the temples of all the East”. Lurgan Sahib was actually inspired by A M Jacob, a mysterious, almost mystical jewellery and curio dealer. Interestingly, ‘Kim’ was Jawahar Lal Nehru’s favourite novel.
His time in Shimla also gave him plenty of material for ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’, his sometimes wry, sometimes tragic, stories about the idiosyncrasies of British India and the uneasy relationship between the rulers and the ruled. This was also when he graduated from journalism to writing fiction.
Shimla is a far cry from Seoni in Madhya Pradesh. A rocky terrain with little streams passing through the hills, surrounded with swathes of bamboo and deciduous tree, this setting is often cited as the inspiration for the landscapes in Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’.
Published in 1894, ‘The Jungle Book’ proved to be a hit with young and old alike. The series of stories of a human boy named Mowgli, raised by animals in the wild, made for riveting reading. In these tales, the animals proved to be both Mowgli’s allies and adversaries. Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Shere Khan the tiger have all become famous characters in children’s literature. They even appeared in Kipling’s sequel, ‘The Second Jungle Book’, which was released in 1895.
In truth, Kipling never visited this part of India and wrote the stories while he was actually living in Vermont. Kipling had returned to England in 1889, and with his reputation preceding, had quickly become acclaimed as one of the most brilliant prose writers of his time. His fame was redoubled upon the publication in 1892 of the verse collection ‘Barrack Room Ballads’, which contained such popular poems as ‘Mandalay’, ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Danny Deever’.
In 1892, he married Caroline Balestier, the sister of an American friend, and the couple moved to Vermont in the United States, where her family lived. The couple named their home Naulakha (which translates to ‘jewel beyond price’ in Hindi). Their two daughters were born there and it was here Kipling wrote ‘The Jungle Book‘ based his jungle descriptions on other books, photographs and conversations, referring to Seoni’s jungle as Seeonee at various instances in his tales.
Kipling’s startling accuracy in describing a place he never visited is credited it to his reading of Sterndale’s Gazetteer. Sterndale was a district officer in the mid-19th century who wrote ‘Seeonee or Camp Life on the Satpura Range’ (1877), based on his life in Seoni from 1857 to 1864. His book gives an account of Seoni as a wild, tiger-infested country during the First War of Independence. Scholars have also traced back the Mowgli story to incidents related by British official W.H. Sleeman and his pamphlet, ‘An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens‘.
Kipling spent much of the next decade on children’s books, producing the jungle tales of Mowgli, as well as such bedtime favorites as ‘Rikki-Tikki Tavi’ and the glorious ‘Just So Stories’, which he illustrated himself. Interestingly , other than the adventures of Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera, ‘The Jungle Book’ series also present quieter, related tales such as ‘The Miracle of Purun Bhagat’, the life of a kind saint, beloved by animals.
He later moved back to London and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English author to be so honoured. In 1930, he revisited his birthplace before passing away in a London hospital in January 1936 at the age of 70.
Although Kipling eventually left India, India never left Kipling: it made the man who would go on to make literary history. On his 82nd death anniversary, we remember the literary giant who captured the flavour of India to a point where it became folklore.